Friday, 28 August 2009

The Tides of Time: Archaeology on the Northumbrian Coast by Caroline Hardy and Sarah Rushton

The trouble with ordering books from the library is you don’t always know what you are getting. I had hoped for a good solid book on coastal archaeology, but what I got was a hybrid funded by the Countryside Agency and published by Northumberland County Council that isn’t really quite sure what its audience is. The large format and glossy pictures suggest a coffee table book for tourists, while the blurb on the back cover promises that: "If you have an interest in the past, this book will supply all you need to develop that interest through visiting archaeological remains and perhaps even finding new sites for yourself!" (Therein lies the problem, I think: the County Council couldn’t simply produce something to read, it has to fulfill a need.)

The book is organised chronologically and thematically (resources, defences), starting with prehistoric remains, but at 96 pages, there’s not room to cover much more than the obvious landmarks, while “Finding new sites for yourself” is dealt with in less than half a page. The photographs are attractive and alongside the site descriptions are useful notes on access, while for each section there is a good “pull-out block” with a list of further reading. It is this last, with the aid of the library catalogue, which might provide me with some serious reading on local archaeology, so for that, at least, I owe it some thanks. At the reasonable price of £8.99, though, this is a nice book for visitors to take home

Thursday, 27 August 2009

We plough the fields and scatter

Photo: Chris Miles

Occasionally, living in the country is not all bucolic pleasures and the ripe fruits of harvest. In recent years we have been beset by what my son calls "the smell of death" - not the rotting corpse smell which sometimes happens if a mouse dies under the floorboards, and which is literally the smell of death, but the awful miasma created by the pile of sewage waste that lives a quarter of a mile down the track, and which is ploughed into the fields at this time of year. At such times, it's an undescribable, but utterly pervasive smell, with a background whiff of ammonia, and it catches at the back of your throat, causes headaches and nausea and OH is having nosebleeds (though they were probably started by the chaff that flew at the beginning of the week when the grain was being cut).

People living in the countryside are sometimes divided over the issue of smell - many people aren't keen in living near a pig farm, for instance. With the exception of hen batteries, I would say that the aroma of living animals is generally tolerable. This, however, hangs in the air for days (in fact, the pile at the end of the track has been there for some months, so there's often a lingering smell when the wind blows in our direction) and is impossible to escape. It's the first thing you notice when you wake in the morning and it can seem to hang even more heavily in the evening air. We are told that ploughing it straight in to the fields will cut down on the odour, but it doesn't while the ploughing is going on, and that has been for several days now. Worst of all, I think, is that you can taste it all the time. Today is lovely, fresh and breezy, but I have just realised that I don't want to put my washing out, because the air is full of grey dust.

I do accept that returning human waste to the soil of much preferable to dumping it in the sea and using artificial fertiliser, and that the lime treatment which makes the ammonia smell worse is necessary to reduce pathogens; I don't want to run for the city to escape, nor do I wish country life to be sanitised for my convenience, but oh, I shall be glad when it stops.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

My Country Childhood by Susy Smith (ed.)

This is a collection of articles from Country Living magazine (which, I should add, I don’t read, since I generally avoid magazines and newspapers of all kinds), reminiscences, mainly by writers and actors, about growing up in the country. My interest was mainly in its guise as social history, since many of the contributors are my age or older, and I was amused to find some similar memories to my own:
I grew up in post-war London. We had a terraced house in Chelsea with no garden. Ten houses along, there was a bomb site. The walk to school, past the bomb site, took twenty minutes. On ‘smog’ days, my sister and I were told to tie handkies around our mouths, and by the time we got to school, the handkies would be grey. London then – even Chelsea, which has always had pretensions to smartness – was a poor, dirty city. (Rose Tremain)
I spent my first few years in Bromley, which was a little less grey than the city, but the effects of the polluted air nearly killed me, and I was fortunate to move to the Highlands, where I became disgustingly healthy. I remember the bomb sites from trips into London, where my grandfather had a pharmacy – walls which suddenly stopped, exposing a fireplace or doorway and, in summer, blown fluff from the plant I then called fireweed, and only later learnt its prettier country name of rosebay willowherb.

Here are memories of hard winters, of milk collected in churns. Of cottages by the sea and huge, cold rambling houses. Richard Adams recalls a childhood learning the wildflowers and birds of the nearby Watership Down that made him famous, while Laurie Lee anatomises the country year through seasonal games. Tom Paulin admits to boredom in a coastal cottage, but horses provided entertainment for many. There is the exotic, too:
In Bengal our town Narayanganj’s river was the Lakya, part of the vast network of the Brahmaputra and the only direct way into town, There was plenty of life in and on the river: a life of crocodiles and fish, of porpoises that somersaulted in and out of the water, of herons and egrets wading in the shallows and kingfishers perched on marker posts. (Rumer Godden)
Fifty contributors offer little snapshots, mainly of the British Isles - though I found Scotland and Wales under-represented – in the sort of book that might make a good Christmas present. The line drawings throughout add a nice touch.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009


This is the time of year when I fret about butterflies! Earlier in the year there seemed, yet again, to be very few in evidence, but in recent weeks there have been good numbers of red admirals, painted ladies, peacocks and large whites around the garden (especially on the buddlejas), with smaller numbers of small tortoiseshell. In the lane there are ringlets and meadow browns as well, although not in such large numbers as in good years. At the weekend I was delighted to see a small copper - pictured below - which isn't very common on our patch, and this made me think idly about keeping some sort of more formal record of the species I see.

The thought led me to the site of the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme, from where this picture comes, and where I discovered that there are two people recording species locally (which is done by walking the same route every week for six months of the year). One of them is on Lindisfarne, and the other just a few miles north. They are both recording all the species that I see regularly, as well as a couple more, such as the green-veined white, a butterfly I may well have seen without realising it. I must start looking at the white butterflies more closely.

It would be quite an undertaking for me to walk the same route every week at the moment - I'm away too much - so I am not going to join the scheme, but I walk our track most weeks and it would be interesting to get into the habit of using the recording methodology. Then, if I ever get the chance to retire, I can start doing it properly! Before I got so busy, I used to record for the Nature's Calendar Survey, which tracks wildlife in relation to climate (and ties in to the Spring and Autumnwatch surveys) so my observations will still be useful and I'll be able to compare them with my own records on that site. And maybe I can get younger son interested in taking part, as he takes the dogs along the lane most days (he was with me when we saw the small copper, and wanted to check on its identity as soon as we got home).

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Swallows again

The infant swallows are getting bigger, and their parents are busy from dawn till dusk collecting insects (which is much appreciated by me!)